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Quest Magazine Dr. Damara Paris

"I didn’t feel supported enough to accept my identity as a deaf person — therefore I didn’t feel that I could ask for help."

Damara Paris.jpg

Deafness proved to be an obstacle for Dr. Damara Paris from an early age, with little resources available until she found out about a sign language class. The barrier was broken, and she was able to pursue higher education. She now serves as faculty in the Counselor Education Department at Emporia State University.

“I was a nontraditional student in many aspects. I did not begin college until I was 21,” explained Damara Paris, an associate professor in the Emporia State University Counseling Department. “I had a difficult time in high school because I was deaf, and services were not provided to me to assist my education, even though it was legally required at the time I attended secondary education.”

Paris became deaf at age 2 as a result of a moving vehicle accident that also resulted in the eventual below-the-knee amputation of her right leg. Her first years in elementary and secondary education were spent partially in the hospital, attending a school for the disabled, and then mainstreamed into public schools.

“Most of the focus on resources were for my physical disability. My needs as a deaf child were largely ignored.”

As a result, she had little support or resources o help her with communication barriers. She was expected to break through the brick wall placed in front of her in elementary and secondary education, although there was no clear path to do so at the time.

“I read a lot, and I asked a friend to take notes in the class we shared,” said Paris. “I didn’t ask for help much because I was in an environment that was not open to supporting the needs of deaf people. Half of my teachers truly believed I was faking my loss, especially in high school. It was located in a small town in the early ’80s. I didn’t feel supported enough to accept my identity as a deaf person — therefore I didn’t feel that I could ask for help.”

Paris recalls one incident in typing class where the bell would ring during typing tests, and she would continue unaware.

“My teacher was very upset with me on many occasions, and in front of the entire class accused me of trying to cheat.”

The lack of support didn’t limit her, though. Paris persevered and completed her high school degree. Soon after, an opportunity arose.

“On a whim one day, I took a sign language class. This changed my life completely. From this experience, I learned to sign (I did not have much sign language experience previously), and learned about the rehabilitation act, which ensured I had an equitable access to higher education,” she explained. “Once I was confident with my sign skills, I enrolled in a few courses with an interpreter.”

Through this community college course and access to the interpreter, Paris thrived. At the age of 21, when many of her peers were thinking about college graduation, she decided to enroll in her second college-level course.

“My thoughts at the time were that if I didn’t make it, I would abandon the idea of a college degree,” Paris explained. “My first semester was successful, and I kept going until I graduated.”

This made Paris the first in her family to go to college. Following her undergraduate degree, Paris enrolled in graduate school.

“I enrolled in a master’s program for rehabilitation counseling, obtained the degree and landed my first job as a mental health counselor/director of a non-profit organization,” said Paris.

Not surprisingly, a graduate degree opened many doors for her.

“As a result of having a master’s degree, I was able to go into leadership positions. It also provided me with opportunities to consult as an expert in rehabilitation counseling — which led to networking, community service and leadership positions with community-based organizations.”

From there, she served as a director of a nonprofit mental health program for several years and went on to become the State of Oregon’s director of telecommunication assistance programs for people with disabilities and people who were low-income.

“After 8 years in that position, Sprint recruited me to become an account manager, and then a national marketing director for relay services. I enjoyed a number of years in this position before I began my career as a college professor,” said Paris.

While she enjoyed rewarding careers leading nonprofit, state and corporate agencies, she still held on to her dream of obtaining a doctorate and becoming a professor in college. She considered a doctorate in her early 30s, but family circumstances prevented her from achieving this goal for a number of years.

“When I was in my early 30s and starting my career in telecommunications, I received an unexpected surprise — a baby on the way. Prior to this, there were indications that I would not have children and I had prepared for this. Then a welcomed miracle happened — a surprise baby. However, at the time she was born, there were family obligations. I was helping my ex-husband through a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree, while often being the majority financial provider for my family and co-parenting a small child. I wasn’t able to step away from my job with all of these priorities. It wasn’t until my ex-husband was finished with college and my child was older that I could even consider a doctorate,” explained Paris.

Not only that, but doctoral programs in rehabilitation counseling were hard to come by in her region. Of those Paris found, few were affordable or offered exactly what she was looking for.

“In 2010, I found a doctoral program financed by the Department of Education, applied — and won a spot. The program covered my tuition and most expenses in exchange for working as a college professor for at least 4 years. I was also in a job that allowed me to work anywhere (it was a work from home endeavor for Sprint — I directed teams all over the USA, using video conferencing). I am truly grateful for this opportunity to be able to work full-time, and travel to my weekend courses in another state twice a month until my doctorate was complete. It was not easy being a wife, mom, full-time worker and full-time doctorate student, but I achieved my dissertation requirements and successfully completed the courses well in advance of my original timeline.”

Paris completed her doctorate degree in her mid-40s.

“My doctorate changed my life in many ways, particularly because I am finally doing something that I truly enjoy — working with students and crafting online courses that keep learners engaged.”

Paris recently achieved tenure and associate professor status at Emporia State University, and focuses primarily on developing online graduate courses for her department. As a Quality Matters Master Reviewer, she now assists ESU with reviewing online courses for the university.

“I love the challenge of ensuring that diverse students, especially students with disabilities, have varied opportunities in an online environment to benefit from coursework using a medium that best matches their learning styles.”